Microsoft thinks it’s found the next big thing

Satya Nadella at Build this week. Picture: Getty Images

What comes after smartphones and apps?

Chatbots, according to Microsoft.

In this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover story, Microsoft revealed its plans to go all in on chatbots, or programs powered by artificial intelligence that can help you do mundane tasks like book a flight or schedule your finances.

The company gave more demos of its experiments with chatbots during its annual Build developer’s conference on now in San Francisco.

“It’s a simple concept, yet it’s very powerful in its impact,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said. “It is about taking the power of human language and applying it more pervasively to our computing.”

Chatbots are a growing trend in the tech world. Amazon’s Echo speaker has a built-in digital assistant called Alexa that you can talk to and order items online, get traffic and weather alerts, or control your music. Facebook Messenger has a chatbot called M that can do just about anything for you, even prank your friends.

And there are several smaller apps and services out there like Magic, which act as virtual concierges.

According to Bloomberg’s profile, Microsoft’s big push into chatbots is the first major project dreamed up exclusively by Nadella since he took over about two years ago. Nadella’s vision is that chatbots are “more natural for people to get things done” instead of having a separate app for each task.

Nadella is this week showing off new tools developers can use to build chatbots at Build. He puts chatbots — which he calls “conversations as a platform” — in the same category as past paradigm shifts like the graphical user interface, the web browser and the iPhone-driven adoption of the touchscreen..

Tay zoom
Microsoft’s Tay chatbot. Twitter

Microsoft’s big push into chatbots could be because it pretty much missed the modern mobile computing trend dominated by apps. It was late with its Windows Phone launch, and developers pretty much ignore the platform. That world is owned by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android now.

Instead, Nadella wants to create an entirely new platform run by conversation, not apps you tap and swipe at on a screen. We’re seeing the same thing with Amazon, which tried to muscle its way into the smartphone market with the Fire Phone in 2014, but the phone was a massive flop.

Facebook is also expected to focus heavily on chatbots that work with Messenger at its F8 developer’s conference in April.

Microsoft’s first foray into chatbots didn’t go so well. Last week, the company launched Tay, a Twitter chatbot designed to speak like a teenager. But Tay was flooded with abusive messages and eventually developed into a racist monster.

Microsoft was forced to apologise and pull the plug on Tay.

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